The Night of the Hunter (1955) Poster

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Sleep, Lit'le ones, sleep...
paulhjrickards23 September 2002
I still hear the lullaby singing sweetly in my head, like a hazy, haunting dream that won't go away.

From the opening scene of the beautiful Lillian Gish and her children, watching over the world in a starry sky, this movie just sinks you into a mesmeric fairy tale land. The camera takes us down in one sweeping move to a scene of children playing, a hot sunny day, and right to the feet of a murder victim. And that sweet music turns on us like a twisted nightmare as the scene chases after a car speeding along a country road to find one of movies worst villains.

Charles Laughton, in sadly his one and only stab at directing, created a masterpiece of horror with Night of the Hunter. The moments of sugar coated sweetness only make this movie even more disturbing as you wonder how the two can inhabit the same world.

Mitchum is terrifying. More-so in a town full of simple folk ready to match him up with the local widow who needs a father for her lit'le n's. Its like he's walked into the middle of a Frank Capra movie and he's going to do what he wants to.

This is not just a great horror movie, but an artist achievement to rival Welles' Kane. The river scene is one of many moments of pure visual splendor. And that sound track just keeps drifting alone, as if trying to coax you into slumber, till the singing madman of your nightmares comes over the hill, relentless. "Chil-dren, Come along now"

You don't watch this movie, it watches you. ...Hush, Lit'le ones, Hush.
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One of the most extraordinary movies ever made. Essential viewing for anybody interested in American movies!
Infofreak20 May 2004
'The Night Of The Hunter' is recognized by most critics and hard core film buffs as one of the most extraordinary movies ever made, but sadly it's still frequently overlooked by the many movie fans, probably because it's so difficult to categorize. Yes, it's a thriller but it's also a child's nightmare. A Noir but also a fable. Robert Mitchum gives one of his very best performances as Harry Powell, the charming but evil preacher with "love" tattooed on one hand, "hate" on the other. Powell is one of the most memorable screen villains of all time, and 'The Night Of The Hunter' is worth watching just for Mitchum, who is mesmerizing. Shelley Winters is surprisingly effective as the widow Powell woos, Peter Graves has a small role at the beginning as her first husband, and Lillian Gish plays the saintly Ms. Cooper, guardian of unwanted children. Because this movie isn't set in isn't the "real world" many viewers don't know exactly how to react to it. Charles Laughton's small town America is a stylized, dreamlike place, in some ways not unlike David Lynch's twisted world depicted in 'Blue Velvet' and 'Twin Peaks'. It also reminds me of Flannery O'Connor's Gothic South in her classic novels 'Wise Blood' and 'The Violent Bear It Away'. Some of the scenes involving Powell menacing Winters' children deliberately invoke James Whale's 'Frankenstein', and the sequence depicting the children's journey down the river is charming but blatantly artificial. While I'm a big fan of "outsider" film makers like Russ Meyer, Coffin Joe and Alejandro Jodorowsky, I also greatly admire those who work within the system but still manage to subvert Hollywood with doses of surrealism. I'm thinking of movies such as 'Kiss Me Deadly', 'Shock Corridor' and 'The Manchurian Candidate'. Each of these films are unique but they also remind me of each other and of 'The Night Of The Hunter'. I highly recommend them all and wish that there were a lot more movies like them today. 'The Night Of The Hunter' is essential viewing for anybody interested in American movies!
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Innocence shattered
jotix1004 October 2005
It's a shame Charle Laughton, the distinguished actor, didn't direct more films. As he clearly indicates with "The Night of the Hunter", he had a rare gift for guiding a production into achieving greatness. This film, which didn't receive the attention it got when it was released, has turned out to be something discerning movie fans saw from the start, a classic.

Charles Laughton was basically a man of the theater, then came the movies, but he was at heart someone who was equally at ease working on the stage, or performing in front of a camera. Mr. Laughton undertook to direct this screen play written by another distinguished American writer and critic, James Agee, based on the David Grubb's novel.

The result is a magnificent film about to what extreme a man will go in order to steal from two young and innocent children something their father had left for them in trust. The evil character of Harry Powell, a charlatan preacher taking advantage of poor and unsophisticated country folk, is one of the best creations in the novel. Harry Powell doesn't care what he must do to get his hands in the money. He marries the children's mother, a widow who was hoping for some happiness in her life, only as part of his overall scheme of things.

The film is a poetic account of the story with great emphasis on the kindness the children receive at the end from Rachel Cooper, a woman with a heart of gold who took John and Pearl into her home when they needed it.

Robert Mitchum is the evil Harry Powell. It's without a doubt, one of Mr. Mitchum's best screen work. As guided by the director, the actor gives a performance that still surprises whoever watches the film for the first time. Shelley Winters plays Willa, the widow who can't sense the danger connected to the man she marries. Lillian Gish is another luminous presence in the film because she projects no-nonsense kindness and sweetness toward the children she takes into her home.

The film also is enhanced by the brilliant black and white cinematography by Stanley Carter. The film still shows a pristine look fifty years after it was released. Also, the musical score of Walter Shumann adds another layer in the film's texture.

"The Night of the Hunter" is ultimately a work of art that moves the viewer because of the tremendous work its director, Charles Laughton, gave to the movie.
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Felix-286 November 2005
I was lucky enough to see this in a cinema with a restored print. I had previously caught a snatch of it while channel surfing cable TV, and saw enough in about 30 seconds to realise that this was worth watching through if I got the chance.

I could barely speak at the end of the film. Pauline Kael called it one of the scariest movies ever made, and she was absolutely right. Robert Mitchum becomes the embodiment of evil, and his pursuit of the children is so relentless, and so menacing, that it becomes impossible to believe that they can escape. The images are brilliant; there's a depth to black and white that colour somehow lacks, and it is used superbly here to create a sense of brooding terror.

I didn't mind the homily at the end. Like everything else in the film, it is done with utter conviction, and this makes it work. Charles Laughton saw it as the indispensable conclusion to the film, and the strength of his belief makes it indispensable.

The images are so much part of the film that it must lose a great deal on the small screen, although my minimal exposure to it in that environment showed that it was still well worth watching, but if you get a chance to see it in a cinema, jump at it.
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A must-see for lovers of art cinema and suspense. Exquisite!
Moxie29 December 1998
One of the best suspense films ever made. Exquisite art direction: moody, scary, sometimes lyrically beautiful. Yet there are comical and even idyllic moments. Mitchum is EXCELLENT, especially in the cellar scene. Subtle, different; not just the same old ax-after-ax tear-'em-up blood-and-gore formula, but REAL suspense built from the personalities of the characters and the artful editing, music, art direction, and Charles Laughton's directing. Yet warm and lovely in parts. The cast's characterizations are excellent, even in minor roles, such as the "typical townspeople". You'll remember this one for a long time. Maybe not for kids under 12, as the frightening parts are too much like real life (compared to run-of-the-mill horrendous movies) and might leave unsettling memories.
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Very atmospheric thriller
bob the moo17 November 2003
Just before John Harper's father is captured by police, he tells his son where he has hidden the money. While in prison for his crime, he sleep talks and betrays himself to the religiously unhinged Rev Harry Powell. Powell leaves jail with Harper dead in his cell and sets out to infiltrate the family and get the money. However, when he kills John's mother, he and his sister go on the run from him.

One of these `hindsight is 20/20' films that gains a reputation with time, this film deserves the praise in gets in many areas and deserve to be very fondly remembered, or at least a lot more fondly than it was received by critics and audiences of the time. The plot is basic but full of religious imagery that works very well, whether it's Powell's twisted preacher or the runs of scripture that many of the characters cling to. The film presents itself with a very strong tone of foreboding and darkness that makes the material (and characters) feel more dangerous.

Most of the credit for this belongs with Laughton as director, who uses shadow really well and frames the film with clever shots. Some that come to mind is the shadow of Powell on his horse on the horizon, or the woman in the car underwater and so on. It stills feels clever and inventive now so it must have been seen as very different in the fifties. How he didn't win an Oscar, I'm not sure – wonder what else was up in this year.

Mitchum is tremendous in the title role, his role is larger than life and was also slightly playing with fire in it's portrayal as a reverend as corrupt or evil. Chapin is really wonderful as young John and has a much better character than some of the others in the cast. Winters is good in her performance. The only downside of the film is the 10 minutes at the end which feel like they are a happy ending that has just been tacked on and doesn't fit with the tone of the film.

Other than that, this is a very strong film in terms of theme, plot, acting and cinematography. It deserves more than it got at the time and I'm glad that modern audiences are finding this film all the time.
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Breathtaking Imagery
Lechuguilla16 December 2007
Extraordinary, unparalleled, breathtaking ... that's how I would appraise the film's visuals, from DP Stanley Cortez. The images are all in B&W, and many have a noir design straight out of German Expressionism. Sharp angles, high-contrast "hard" lighting, and deep shadows amplify form, or rather distort reality, and as such project human experience as an exaggeration of the emotional.

Some of the images in "The Night Of The Hunter" are so enthralling that they will live on in the collective mind as long as cinema exists. Who can forget that famous underwater scene wherein a dead woman's body sits upright in a car with her hair flowing along the current like seaweed, accompanied by background music that is so dreamlike? One of my favorite images is the one wherein Willa Harper (Shelley Winters) lies in blissful repose on a bed as Harry Powell (Robert Mitchum) stands by a window in an unadorned room with angular walls that slope upward, as if in a church.

One of the most haunting, and famous, sequences has the two children, John and Pearl, in a rowboat, as they make a Homeric odyssey down a river, lorded over by giant spider webs, frogs, and rabbits. And then there's that electrifying scene with Rachel Cooper (Lillian Gish) in silhouette, sitting in a chair, holding a shotgun, as Harry Powell sings "Leaning On The Everlasting Arms". Cinematic brilliance extraordinaire!

Consistent with its expressionistic visuals, the story is presented from the POV of a child's nightmare. John and Pearl symbolize innocence, and the bogeyman comes in the form of an adult, a godlike man who cons the gullible townsfolk including the children's mom. Our good reverend Powell is less interested in saving souls than he is in finding all that loot stashed away somewhere. Thus, the film's underlying theme is at least as relevant now as it was fifty years ago; the film has not aged one bit.

Production design is sparse, true to the film's visual style and to the setting in Depression era West Virginia. The casting is perfect. Robert Mitchum has just the right look and voice for the part of Harry Powell. I like how he calls to John and Pearl ... "chill-drenn?" Lillian Gish is well-suited to represent ... reality.

And those two kids likewise are ideally cast. Love the way Pearl, with her round face and those rag-a-muffin curls refers to herself, in that Southern drawl, as "Pell". And the film's horror combines with humor in many scenes, one of which has "Pell" sitting on the ground with scissors in hand nonchalantly cutting up paper currency into paper dolls.

Acting is generally exaggerated, again consistent with what one would expect in a nightmare. Evelyn Varden, as Icey Spoon (love that name), hams it up in a gossipy, mother hen sort of way. And Shelley Winters effectively jitters her way through the film, ghostlike, her character lost in delusion.

The film's original score is haunting and mournful, and could hardly set a more appropriate tone: "Dream little one, dream; dream my little one, dream; oh the hunter in the night fills your childish heart with fright; fear is only a dream; so little one dream".

With its brilliant photography, its unpopular but deeply truthful theme, and its nightmarish story, Charles Laughton's "The Night Of The Hunter" is high up on my list of twenty best films of all time.
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Suffer the little children
bkoganbing24 September 2006
Charles Laughton had only one choice to pay the role of psycho-reverend- conman for his adaption of Night of the Hunter and it was Robert Mitchum. When he's on the screen Mitchum fills it with malevolence.

It's an unusual part for Mitchum. Usually he's terse and laconic in films, but as Harry Powell he's just full of words. Of course he doesn't mean anything he says, but he's just a fountain of speech in Night of the Hunter. Mitchum as he did later on in Thunder Road drew from his hobohemian background of the open road to get his characterization of the Reverend Harry Powell.

Powell who marries and murders women after robbing them blind has more than 25 to his credit in the backwoods of the Ohio river country in West Virginia and Kentucky during the Depression years. But he gets arrested for stealing a car and gets 30 days in jail. Mitchum gets thrown in the same cell as Peter Graves who robbed a bank and killed two people. Graves before he's caught gave the loot to his son Billy Chapin with a promise not even to tell their mother because she's not too swift. How right he's proved to be.

After Graves is hung, Mitchum finishes his sentence with the intention of wooing and marrying widow Shelley Winters. She falls for his line as does her little girl Sally Jane Bruce. But young Billy spots Mitchum for a phony from the gitgo.

The children are in for a lot of heartbreak and tragedy before the film concludes. One of the things I like best about Night is the Hunter is the way Laughton graphically demonstrates the life and poverty of rural America during the Depression. The film is all seen through the eyes of the children as they begin their Huck Finn like odyssey down the Ohio river, escaping from Mitchum.

According to Lee Server's biography of Mitchum, Laughton while great with the adults had no patience at all with the kids. After a while he let Mitchum actually direct Chapin and Bruce in their scenes.

Lillian Gish gives one of her great performances in the sound era of her career as the farm woman who eventually takes in the kids as she does for a few others. She's there to be a contrast to Mitchum. Her actions speak her faith a lot louder than Mitchum's phony ramblings.

Another role I like in this is that of Evelyn Varden. She and husband Don Beddoe employ Shelley Winters at their drug store and she's all full of concern in a showy pharisee like way for the kids. She's totally taken with Mitchum, but when he's unmasked as a phony her rage is something to see on screen.

Sad that Charles Laughton didn't do more behind the camera than this one film. He and Robert Mitchum formed a mutual admiration society that lasted until Laughton passed on inn 1962.

Still Night of the Hunter is a testament to that mutual admiration.
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Good, but.
snow0r24 March 2006
Warning: Spoilers
The Night of the Hunter sees Robert Mitchum play a corrupt preacher in a well-done atmospheric thriller that gets increasingly confused as it draws to its overdue conclusion.

The first half is fantastic. It's shot brilliantly, the use of shadow and contrast very effective (although perhaps easy in a black and white film), and it is well acted for the most part. Mitchum plays his role brilliantly, and even the children play their parts well, but some of the older actors are guilty of over-eagerness and put in comically "hammy" performances. The score is guilty of being similarly over the top; as it announces Mitchum's entrance, there's no doubt that you really aren't supposed to like him. But it is unfair perhaps to criticize it for sticking to the styles of the times.

The second half is a different matter, as the children run away to escape the evil preacher's clutches. From this point onwards it turns into a form of social commentary ("Gee, look at the problems they had back then"), complete with seasonal workers and a sort of orphanarium. On top of the theologizing such a message is a bit unnecessary and only serves to slow down the film's pace and delay it's inevitable conclusion. It even turns into a TV Christmas movie of sorts before announcing its end, and such an off-key conclusion spoils the great work put in in the first half.

Overall, it's very good and is definitely worth watching, with some good performances and cinematography, but as it draws towards its slow end and Christmas scenes you'll be left wondering what might have been.
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An Unusual Blend Of Film Noir & German Expressionism
CinemaClown19 May 2015
Veteran actor Charles Laughton's directional debut & perhaps the only feature film he ever directed is a rare breed that blends film-noir with German expressionism, resulting in a very unique looking cinema that unfolds its narrative in a lyrical manner but also makes up for some weird moments as the two styles are often at odds with each other.

Based on the novel of the same name, the story of The Night of the Hunter focuses on one corrupt reverend-turned-serial killer who uses his charm to woo rich widows before killing them & fleeing with their money. Jailed for driving a stolen car, he learns from his cell mate about the large sum of money he had stolen & goes after his family once he's out of prison.

Co-written & directed by Charles Laughton, The Night of the Hunter really benefits from the few elements it borrows from German expressionism of the silent era like eccentric camera angles, unconventional settings, surreal photography or silhouette figures but its inclusion of stylised dialogues & unrealistic acting in a Hollywood crime-drama is also unintentionally hilarious at times.

Production design work is excellent, Cinematography makes terrific use of lighting, contrast & shadows, camera placement is inventive & every frame is captured in crisp detail. Editing is brilliant for the most part but its final act also feels overstretched, and performances are a mixed bag for the kids do a pretty good job in their given roles while Robert Mitchum's expressionist act borders on hamming.

On an overall scale, The Night of the Hunter is experimental cinema at its finest for it tries to merge into film-noir what influenced the genre in the first place. From a technical standpoint, the film is influential in every manner, especially the way it uses its camera to set a disturbing mood or introduce its themes but its overstretched ending, excessively dramatic lead act & depicted stupidity (or innocence) of children never allowed me to take its premise seriously.
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Excellent movie, and well ahead of its time.
Rich B13 September 2002
This film is way ahead of its time, not only in subject matter but also in cinematic style. The subject is a psychopathic preacher who believes that God is telling him to murder women, usually widowers, and take their money.

From the opening two shots and the first few lines of the preacher, the characters history and intent is laid down. As quickly, the first few scenes with the children show the circumstances that will bring about the main premise. After that you are allowed to wallow in Robert Mitchums role as the over acting preacher. Laughton directs very well, with some visually rich scenes and wonderful shots. However, there are a couple of cheesy moments of dialogue, and a few, almost laughable, scenes. Despite this it's a very good movie with some stunning acting from Robert Mitchum.
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Beautiful cinematography and an epic tale of the struggle between good and evil
binnertdebeaufort12 October 2005
Warning: Spoilers
The first time I saw this film was probably more than ten years ago on a late Monday night on the BBC. At such a time on such a day one never expects to be shown something decent. But 'Night of the hunter' proved to be one of the best films I have ever seen. The cinematography is breathtaking, especially the river journey of the two children who are fleeing for the evil and demented preacher who killed their mother. Never have I seen nature being portrayed in such a mysterious and dangerous way. The sharp contrasts of light, the dark church in the distance which symbolises the dangerous preacher. The film made me think of the books of Flannery 'O Connor, especially the strange and mysterious southern tale Wise Blood.
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So, so, so very underwhelming
What I liked: The boy who played John was great. Robert Mitchum was great. And the underwater corpse shot was cool (though when they do that shot from above, when the uncle sees the body, it did not work AT ALL. That made the river seem like it was running with the clear blue waters of the Caribbean.). That's about it, folks. What I didn't like: Hoo, boy. Where to start? The main problem was just how painfully OBVIOUS everything was made, the complete lack of subtlety. They might as well have had Mitchum's character stalking about with a cape, and twirling the end of a handlebar mustache. Same goes for the mother-in-law, and Lillian Gish's character, and anyone else deemed righteous and holy: the were practically wearing wings and halos. The look of the river escape scenes: not good. The river and riverside sets just look like sets, nothing more. And that *beep* at the end with Gish essentially sermonizing directly to the camera, "Children are man at his strongest. They abide. They abide and they endur.
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Laughton used every cinematic device to tighten the tensions…
Nazi_Fighter_David30 April 2005
Warning: Spoilers
When I think of the special terror that comes from the vulnerability of the helpless I am haunted by the shock-memory of two films ("The Night of the Hunter" and "Cape Fear") which, by no means coincidentally, both starred Robert Mitchum…

Now there is an actor who would no doubt have attracted more critical garlands if he had not been so incredibly popular, if he had not intercepted such a variety of roles, and if a sardonic air of self-deprecation did not tend to obscure a high talent… If he had decided to specialize in villains, he might even have come to out-play the great Bogart because, to the menace they both could share, Mitchum was able to add a genuinely frightening brutality...

In 1955 Charles Laughton went round to the other side of the cameras to direct one and only one motion picture… Laughton used every cinematic device of camera-angle, sound and lighting to tighten the tensions…

Mitchum played a psychopathic preacher with a restrained malice who married and murdered Shelley Winters for her money – only to find that her young children had it, and he proceeded relentlessly to terrorize them…

Mitchum constructed a really superb characterization of the obsessed drifter, with "love" tattooed on one finger and "hate" on another to point his terrifying parables…
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Overrated in the extreme
Delmare18 August 2008
Warning: Spoilers
Ben Harper (Peter Graves) steals $10,000 and leaves the money in the keeping of his children, John (Billy Chapin) and Pearl (Sally Jane Bruce), hoping they might one day find their way out of the economic trauma of the Depression-era South. John knows where the money is hidden, but Harper has sworn him to secrecy, a move John quickly resents when posing preacher Harry Powell (Robert Mitchum) comes to town. Powell shared a cell with Harper, who, immediately after hiding the money, was arrested for murder and armed robbery. Ben is executed, and the wicked Powell, released from jail, moves in on Willa (Shelly Winters), Harper's gullible widow, hoping to draw out the secret of the money's location. As tensions mount, it becomes progressively clear that the only hope for the children's salvation rests with regional matriarch and philanthropist Rachel Cooper (Lillian Gish) who always keeps her doors open for displaced youngsters.

It's not often that I'm stumped by the question of why a classic is a classic, but thanks to Night of the Hunter, I know it's not unthinkable. Yes, the cinematography is amazing, even by the standards of film noir, but the pace is rushed, the plot is a walking disaster, and the characters – if we can call them that – more closely resemble flotsam.

The movie opens with Gish's disembodied head floating on a backdrop of stars, the drifting heads of children listening with rapt attention to her formulaic Bible-talk. Even if we grasp the intended irony of the moment – a dreamy segue into a deadly nightmare – there's no escaping how God-blastedly cheesy the image looks, how it feels more like a presage to Sesame Street or an eighties sit-com than a purportedly moving work of horror. As an intro, it destroys any precedent for subtlety. We're less than a minute into the movie and it's already abundantly clear that our storytellers have absolutely no faith in our ability to figure anything out for ourselves.

The trend continues with the introduction of Harry Powell. Eschewing what could have been a very creepy experience – encountering the dark side of Powell in a slow, subtle, and action-driven manner – Powell hits us over the head with a string of didactic monologues, our occasion for discovery smashed right at the outset. Ben Harper, by contrast, is dispensed with so quickly we're barely aware of his presence. He's a completely wasted opportunity, a perfunctory McGuffin for an even more perfunctory plot. The movie would have been much more powerful if John had gone through the story haunted by the memory of a loving father who died in a desperate act to provide for him. Instead, Harper's only function is to set the story in motion, and as soon as he does this, he disappears from view and from memory.

Willa Harper is even more obnoxious. A pivotal factor in the story, Willa's fanatic devotion to Powell is the main instigation of everything else that follows, but because we never get a sense of who Willa was prior to Powell's arrival, her devotion feels unfounded, her behavior seems unreasonable, and, as a consequence, everything else in the story feels like it's balancing on thin air. Why is this woman so easily brainwashed? Why does Powell consistently come out on top? Every single plot-point is, at best, the product of characters acting mysteriously, and at worst, the product of characters behaving in a manner completely opposed to reason. How an entire town can get swept up in the patently obvious lies of a figure like Powell is beyond me, especially to the extent that they side against their own. There's nothing particularly strategic about Powell's methods, nor is he notably charismatic or even all that bright. He constantly loses his temper, performs actions so rash and brainless you'd expect immediate rejoinder, and holds among his many beliefs the bone-headed conviction that the best way to track down a fugitive is to ride through open country and sing at the top of his lungs. Yet Powell always gets way, because the rest of the universe is too stupid to stop him, and it's precisely this idiocy that drives the story forward, not the heroes, and certainly not the villain.

Which brings me to the last point: acting, i.o.w. what the devil is everyone smoking? I respect Robert Mitchum a great deal, but his performance as Powell is woefully over-the-top, in-your-face, and not the least bit compelling. Gish is great, but the credits start rolling before she's even gotten her feet on the ground. Shelly Winters is a tremendous actress, and she does her best as Willa, but again, the character is so poorly written that she comes across feeling like a mariner who's been thrown off the edge of a ship, floundering for all she's worth, but no match for the dead-weight of the screenplay, which drags her to the bottom and feels no remorse. Worst of all is Chapin as John, suffering from prolifically delayed reaction time, always lagging at least a second-and-a-half behind whatever he's supposed to be responding to. Expressions of shock and anger seem to come out of nowhere, a clear indication of his being taught to look and act in a particular way at a particular moment without anyone telling him why. I'm not blaming the kid for this. I'm blaming Charles Laughton, who found children so dislikable he dumped them all on Mitchum, who did his best to direct them, but was clearly not up to the punch.

All in all, I'm at a loss as to why this movie continues to garner such widespread acclaim, save the unfortunate reality that the herd mentality of movie criticism discourages any kind of dissension, so we continue trumpeting the virtues of fossils, long after they've outlived their usefulness.
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WHY does this film receive so much critical acclaim?
dbranan14 October 2006
Warning: Spoilers
Wow, I just cannot say enough bad things about this film. The acting covers the complete spectrum from "ham-fisted" to "wooden." Poor Shelly Winters is obviously misdirected to deliver her lines as though she were reading from a cue card. If you don't believe she can act, check out "A Patch of Blue" or "The Diary of Anne Frank." She is certainly capable of better than this horrible performance which evokes no emotion whatsoever beyond disbelief. And Robert Mitchum! He certainly shows some chops, but my goodness, has there ever been a more ignorant and stupid character in film history? He'd fit right in with "Dumb and Dumber!" How could anyone in his position (who ostensibly had gotten away with murder and robbery on several occasions) NOT see that the money was hidden in the doll? He oozes menace in some scenes, but then is reduced to popping up like something in a carnival shooting gallery and whooping his way into a barn when Lillian Gish shoots him. Seriously, if you want subdued menace in a BELIEVABLE character, how about Tony Perkins in "Psycho" or Sterling Hayden in almost anything? The only actors who manage to pull off believable performances are Billy Chapin and a wonderful Peter Graves, who, in the few minutes he has on screen, out-acts old Bob handily. Think about it, you actually sympathize with a robber and murderer because Graves turns in an almost "Fonda-esque" performance. Oh, and I can't leave out the wonderful old James Gleason as Uncle Birdie. He's both likable and pitiful and has far too little screen time.

In addition to lame dialogue and poor directing, the sound track is an evil entity of its own. Laughton uses it with the subtlety of a jackhammer to announce that "Rev Powell is a bad guy" or "Rev Powell is on that train," etc. I'm all for overshadowing but these "hints" are more like headlines.

Most of the remaining cast of characters are almost cartoons. Evelyn Varden does a particularly egregious bit of overacting as "Icey Spoon". In fact the film itself could be a parody of film noir! Come on, Lillian Gish actually SINGS A DUET with the menacing man sitting outside her house waiting to kill her! I have no idea why people feel compelled to rave about the greatness of this film. It doesn't hold a candle to REAL 1950's film classics like Kubrick's "The Killing" or "Hatful of Rain" or "On the Waterfront," which has more feeling and menace and credibility in the cab scene than "Night of the Hunter" has in its entire fabric. Face it folks, there's a good reason why this was Charles Laughton's ONLY directorial offering.
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is it really a classic?
HelloTexas1120 February 2008
Warning: Spoilers
To Roger Ebert, 'The Night of the Hunter' is one of the Great Movies. To Pauline Kael, it's "one of the most frightening movies ever made." To me, well... it's neither. It definitely has its moments. Brilliant actor Charles Laughton's one and only directorial effort is a very offbeat, stylized film that takes a lot of chances. Unfortunately, not many of them work. The main problem I think is that the story it tries to tell is at odds with the presentation and performances. The latter suggest a kind of Twilight Zone-ish children's fable, dreamlike at times, not meant to resemble real life. And yet the story reminds one more of another film starring Robert Mitchum, 'Cape Fear;' gritty, realistic, even mean-spirited. The two just don't blend together into an effective whole. There is humor here and it is perhaps the most effective part of 'The Night of the Hunter.' Small town religion and Americana circa 1930 are spoofed throughout, sometimes pretty heavy-handedly, but it's hard not to laugh when Shelley Winters' character exclaims, "I feel clean! My body's a-quiverin' with cleanliness." Winters herself looks like she can barely keep from laughing after delivering the line. Mitchum has his share of funny moments too. It's when he's supposed to be menacing that the movie comes up short. His Preacher Harry Powell can't touch 'Cape Fear's' Max Cady in terms of malevolent creepiness. Powell is a con-artist posing as a man of God who discovers that two young siblings, John and Pearl Harper, know where $10,000 is hidden. It was given them by their now-dead father who had them swear never to reveal its whereabouts to anyone, even their mother Willa (Winters). Powell marries Willa for the express purpose of getting his hands on the money. The lack of any graphically believable violence is, in this case, a fatal flaw. When Powell finally comes after the children, his manner is more like a boogeyman in an Abbott & Costello movie than a genuinely deranged killer, which he's supposed to be. Now I know all the art-film critics would call me a numbskull for not appreciating the 'poetic' approach Laughton and his cinematographer take, but again, it just doesn't work for this kind of material. After the children escape, there is a lovely, almost surreal scene where they drift down a river in a skiff and the setting becomes even more like one in a dream or fairy tale. The art direction is beautiful and for a few moments, it is a magical film. The story takes a different direction during the last part of the movie, as John and Pearl are taken in by elderly woman, Rachel, a sort of bible-quoting, occasionally shotgun-toting Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle. She runs an orphanage of sorts and protects the brother and sister when Powell comes after them, though not through any particularly imaginative means. He is eventually arrested and sentenced to hang. There are a few more bizarre scenes, such as the townspeople rising up in anger to lynch Powell once they discover his true past. They tear up a drugstore and march down the street carrying torches (as if they were going after Frankenstein's Monster) and we expect a vicious hanging scene, then the police simply smuggle Powell out a back door and drive him away. So much for the lynch mob. Rachel and the kids celebrate Christmas while Rachel spouts more homely homilies (she's got a million of 'em.) The end. Like I said, I don't know, maybe I'm completely insensitive and unperceptive but the best I can say about 'The Night of the Hunter' is that it's a very mixed bag. Billy Chapin (I wonder whatever happened to him) gives a fine performance as the boy John, who really is the character that holds the movie together. I think lurking somewhere in the myriad of ideas that make up 'The Night of the Hunter' is a great movie, but Charles Laughton just couldn't find it.
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Unsettling, but not in a good way.
rtiplady14 January 2005
Warning: Spoilers
It's a unique experience for me to see a movie that's universally acclaimed and not get something out of it. Night Of The Hunter is that movie. The first thing that struck me was, apart from Mitchum, how bad the acting was. It was hard not to believe that some of the cast had not been plucked from the street outside the studio, prodded onto the set with long poles and forced to read their lines off idiot boards. Secondly, any suspense evaporates early on when the kids escape from Mitchum, after being cornered in a cellar, by a contrivance so lame it doesn't just suspend belief, it kills it stone dead. The film has one or two memorable images but the mood is consistently broken by bad acting, excruciating dialogue, backdrops that ripple gently in the draught from the studio fans and poor continuity. Mitchum's performance is good but it's drowned in a sea of tedious, one-dimensional, ham-fisted twaddle - what a waste. I can see my opinion is a minority view, all I can suggest is that people who find this film worthwhile should check out Peter Weir's Picnic At Hanging Rock, a subtle exercise in atmosphere and menace that actually works.
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I guess Hollywood Wasn't Ready For It
Theo Robertson7 February 2010
Warning: Spoilers
In my review of DR NO I mentioned how audiences must have been shocked at seeing Sean Connery's anti-hero shooting people in the back . I'm sure they were just as shocked by THE NIGHT OF THE HUNTER , but where as DR NO led to the most successful film franchise in the history of cinema this movie was something of a critical and commercial flop on its release . As with CITIZEN KANE on its release there seems to be a large amount of snobbery involved . Unlike today when even someone like Ben Affleck can win an Oscar for doing outside his field ( And some might ask what the hell is Affleck's field ? ) actors in those days were only expected to turn up , say their lines and go home , they surely weren't expected to do something like point a camera or make a classic movie , least of all a British leftist like Charles Laughton. Knives out for British leftists I'd say which may possibly explain why this haunting beautiful movie didn't get a single Oscar nomination , not even for obvious nominations like cinematography or director . It should also be mentioned that this movie deals with false prophets and in mid 1950s ultra conservative America no one but no one ever questioned men of the cloth in those days in case they faced accusations of being a commie agitator . This explains to a modern day audience the naive attitude of the characters towards Harry Powell in relation to a 2003 audience , times have changed both in cinema and the real world in the last 50 years and it's impossible to remember when was the last time we saw a Hollywood movie that actually had a good preacher

NIGHT OF THE HUNTER seems to be best remembered for the scene where the camera follows the fisherman's point of view on the boat to the lake below , but there's several more scenes that deserve to be remembered like the opening sequence of the children's faces across the starscape ,or Robert Mitchum howling like a cartoon character after being shot or the children floating down the river and rabbits and turtles watching them pass . This last scene is very obviously studio bound but that's not a criticism , this is a very highly stylised movie who's technical aspects must have been as jaw dropping back then as LORD OF THE RINGS technical aspects wowed audiences 50 years later . The bitter irony now is that this would have picked up several Oscars -Regardless of its strengths ala BRAVEHEART - if it were made today simply because it was directed by an acto
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tedg31 May 2003
Warning: Spoilers
Spoilers herein.

One thing I am learning in my study of films: a film can be important and bad.

By important I mean that films are largely about other films, with a few here and there establishing new elements of the visual grammar. That grammar - both in what is says and how it says it - has a profound influence on how we think about ourselves and life in general. This film is important in the sense that it establishes - or purely expresses - many elements of that visual grammar in a highly stylized manner.

But in doing so, it is so exaggerated, so blunt, so studiously unnuanced that it any other context it would seem campy. The war between the hands already is camp, post-Strangelove.

Watch this and marvel at the economy: the phallic train, the sledgehammer score, the use of song, the exploitation of the child's face, the monosyllabic sky.

Every element is refined into an image and blared, save one: the Tuesday whoring of Ruby (casually forgiven).

Incidentally, the anti-man theme is a little off-putting. Men are drunks (Steptoe), sexually obsessed (the blase townsboys), nitwits (Spoon), fatally mistaken (Harper), remote (Cooper's son) or just plain evil (Powell). Our relation to the film is intended to be just as the relationship of Pearl to the doll, exclusively maternal (and full of unfulfillable promise).

I'm putting this on my `recommend' list, not because it is remotely enjoyable, but as an example of visual storytelling - albeit offensively banal.

Kael, who judges films as if they were amusement park rides, calls this `noir,' which is to my mind a profound misunderstanding. A noir film is always set in a universe with a capricious fate, beyond the logic of religion (or anything else). This film is as far from that as one can get: the universe here is one run by simple biblical justice.

Ted's Evaluation -- 3 of 4: Worth watching.
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laughably bad
temp8us10 March 2002
Made in 1955 with all of the savvy, subtlety, and good sense of a movie made 20 years earlier. Terrible acting, horrible editing (seeing Robert Mitchum straining *not* to catch up with the kids is a hoot), heavy-handed "art" shots, pathetic script.
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Make-believe, made believable and mythic.
secondtake21 June 2009
Warning: Spoilers
The Night of the Hunter (1955)

Make-believe, made believable and mythic.

Why Charles Laughton diverged from his gifts as an actor to play the role, just this once in a lifetime, as movie director, I don't know. But I wish he had more often. Night of the Hunter is not only a well-directed, engrossing, moving film. It's utterly original. It isn't afraid to be tender and even sentimental, and it isn't afraid to have a very bad man doing bad bad things. It has a mythic river (the Ohio, not the Mississippi, but with the same aura of escape as Huck Finn's river) that creates a flow literal and metaphoric. And it has innocent children, who do, you see, abide.

Laughton puts this together visually as if we are inside a children's storybook. It's all fake like the Wizard of Oz is fake, but unlike Dorothy and her friends, these are real people facing very real consequences. Boy is this a good movie to rock the boat of evangelism. Of course, Robert Mitchum as the evil preacher is a psycho, but why can no one see it but us? Even the children don't quite know it until he starts (very quickly) abusing them. The only one who does see, right away, is the other religious icon in the film, a truly angelic older woman helping orphans in the Depression. When she hears Mitchum start to go into an eloquent (and clumsy) parable, she practically rolls her eyes. Oh, do we all love that! At last, someone who will save the day.

And she does, this woman played by none other than Lillian Gish, in a role very non-silent and very compelling. This story belongs to her, really--she starts the movie off as a storyteller, before it transitions to the preacher up to no good. Mitchum's voice is in full power here, big and yet caressing until it barks. Or it sings--what a voice! Even the other characters comment on it (and yes, it's really Mitchum singing). When Gish and Mitchum meet, and maybe most of all when they sing a perfect, ethereal duet, it's like a clash of many worlds--goodness and evil, piety and charlatanism, Silver Screen and Golden Age. By the last I mean that the kind of movies that Gish made decades earlier and the kind that Mitchum was making right then are implicitly face to face. Even the false and exaggerated stage sets and lighting are more 1920s German Expressionism than film noir, though the latter is unavoidable with this kind of theme and dark style in 1955. Remember that Laughton loved the stage, and cinematographer Stanley Cortez had a long career working on dramatic films, including The Magnificent Ambersons.

There are people, those used to the increasingly realistic movies since the late 1960s, who can't abide by this style of moving making, with its deliberate artifice mixed with convincing characters. The trick is to let go of the expectation that the movie is trying to be naturalistic, just as you let go when you watch Citizen Kane. The moment when Mitchum is chasing the children through the brush to the boat on the shore is key. Mitchum is taking far too long to get through the brambles, and the kids are struggling forever to just get in the boat and push off. After all this suspended franticness, the mood shifts in one heartbeat to the dark water silently carrying the kids off to safety. The girls stretches out with her doll, and the boy puts his head down on his arm.

The other thing this movie does, two decades after when it is set, is provide hope against even the worst of evil. Here is the idea that life is a beautiful illustration and we just need to see it that way to inhabit it safely. There really is a Lillian Gish out there, somewhere, there must be. We just have to close our eyes and follow the river.
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An interesting failure
pontifikator5 November 2009
Warning: Spoilers
The Night of the Hunter (1955)

This interesting failure was directed by Charles Laughton in his only directing foray and stars Shelly Winters and Robert Mitchum. You may also recognize Lillian Gish and Peter Graves. There's some dispute on how to characterize the film (film noir, horror, melodrama), and I will be so bold as to say that this is one of the flaws in Laughton's vision - he didn't get his vision clearly on the screen.

The story is something like this. It's the Depression. Ben (Graves) is married to Willa (Winters), and they have two kids. Ben is involved in a robbery/murder and hides $10,000, telling only his two kids where the cash is. Ben is caught and sentenced to hang. His cellmate is Mitchum's character, Harry Powell. Powell knows the ten grand was never found; Ben mumbles enough in his sleep to tell Powell the kids know the location of the loot. Ben is hanged; Powell serves his time and hightails it to the widow's home.

He marries Willa and starts working on the kids to tell him where the money is hidden. He murders Willa, and the two kids hop on their rowboat and float down the river with the reverend in hot pursuit. We follow the story to the end, Powell gets his just reward, the money is returned, and some people live more or less happily ever after in the Depression.

What makes the movie both a failure and worth watching is Laughton's vision of the tale and Stanley Cortez's cinematography. I'm not sure who did the sets and the lighting, but I'll take those designs as my clues that Laughton was making a moral tale along the lines of Homer's "Odyssey" with German Expressionism very much in the forefront. In some scenes, Willa's bedroom is a normal room. In other scenes, the room becomes a cathedral and hell at the same time. The ceiling becomes highly arched with inset windows, and that part of the set is over lit, almost whited out. This is where Brother Powell holds forth on his sermon of hate and love, communing with his god. In the foreground of the set, Willa is in her bed set on total blackness; she's lighted but in and on a void. The former natural realism of the bedroom is totally gone, and we know we're in another universe where Powell is god, master of love and hate, life and death. And where Powell is master, there's not that much difference between love and hate, and not that great a gulf between life and death. The set shows us who's where in the grand scheme of things. *Spoilers below for those who haven't seen the movie, so don't look.

But the problem is we just have a serious of beautifully composed and filmed scenes. Laughton had magnificent visions, but his storytelling lets us down. Nevertheless, "The Night of the Hunter" is worth watching for the same reasons as "Metropolis" and "The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari" -- Laughton was a genius in getting beautiful images on the screen.

I'd say that those who think this is a film noir have missed the boat.Film noir (in my take on it) had more than darkly lit scenes to create the genre. The text of the film was cynicism shown by a bunch of losers who know they'll never win but have nothing to lose by going through whatever motions they can scare up a motive for. No one can be trusted, loss is inevitable, and all misdeeds will inevitably be punished.

In "The Night of the Hunter," Laughton goes more to Expressionism. The sets he uses are highly stylized: The transformation of Willa's bedroom, for example, where it becomes a cathedral and a void, heaven and hell. Powell's introduction to the family is by the casting of his silhouette on the wall of the children's bedroom. His constant song is "Leaning on the Everlasting Arms," and in one mesmerizing scene he sings it in round with Rachel (Gish), the devil counterpointed by a saint. The theme of "The Night of the Hunter" is more akin to madness than to cynical loss.

Powell's pursuit of the children, again in my opinion, has less to do with horror than with his mad obsession with the money. His attempts to do them in are not based on his evilness but on his callous regard for money. In horror movies there is a monster who destroys simply because it's in the script. Here Powell destroys because he's insane, driven by his lust for money.

Another key to the Expressionist bent of the movie is Mitchum's performance. Often his acting is completely believable and natural, but there are many scenes where Powell is off- kilter, the acting is strange. Powell has crossed from our reality into his, and we need to understand with his understanding, not ours. Mitchum's ability to swing from completely realistic acting to symbolism gave me new respect for his talent.

*SPOILERS----------- Powell has HATE tattooed on the knuckles of his left hand and LOVE on the knuckles of his right. (Some will know the ancient word for left is sinister and for right is droit.) Powell also has a switchblade knife. And he hates sex and sexuality. We see him in a burlesque theater watching a woman do a sensual dance on stage. The camera drops from his face to his waist, and the steel blade pops out of his pocket. Is this phallic? You bet. This is our first symbolic hint of the reverend's proclivities. It turns out he hates all women; on his wedding night with Willa, he coldly refuses sex with her.

In the scene where he murders her, the symbolism is running rampant, and you may notice that he stabs her with his blade held in the hand tattooed with LOVE. The reverend is a twisted man indeed.
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rob-19525 May 2007
Warning: Spoilers
Alright, I read all the negative reviews and my only concern here is that some folks may be dissuaded from watching perhaps the weirdest and most wonderful film ever made after reading some of the spoilsports here trash this movie.

For those of you who haven't seen it, you have to realize a few things before embarking. This movie is WEIRD. OK, it's unlike anything that has ever been made. You just have to sit down and let it do its thing.

Yes, the acting seems bad at first but you have to realize that the characters in this movie are more or less symbols and are simple representative colors of a particular human type. This is a pretty neat way of presenting the story. It's unique. Therefore, the delivery and acting is simplified. Why is Shelly Winters character played so idiotically and badly? Because her character is an idiot. OK. It's weird. Let the movie do its thing. The images are excruciating symbolic and there's a certain genius to that. It's so clear cut that perhaps it flies right over most people's heads.

If you are not moved by the escape scene on the river with Pearl singing in an adult voice a song that is musically STILL ahead of its time, you're probably pretty jaded and need to let some psychedelic magic into your brain. I know most of you are aging hippies, c'mon let go!

Here's some more of the things that bothered the people who hated the movie. Why are there animals on the riverbank while they are floating by? Duh. Take the two little bunnies (animals who are pretty defenseless) for example. Hello, two little kids on a boat? Defenseless animals, anyone? It's profound and beautiful in its simplicity.

OK, why does Mitchum not swim after the kids when they are three feet away. Maybe he's afraid of water? Maybe he's just crazy as hell? Hello, he is! Anything he does is going to go against logic because his character is a psychopath! I mean we all love "putting the lotion in the basket." That worked, didn't it? Of course the exposition in the film helped on that one. Well NOTH has no exposition. You shouldn't need it. Why does he say he'll be back after dark to get the kids from Lilian Gish giving her time to call the cops? Uh, he's a nut job. Why does he hoot and scream like a weirdo when he gets shot? 'Cause......he's a homicidal maniac!!!! It's weird and unexpected and makes you feel funny kind of like what a crazy person does.

To all you Scrooges, why didn't Marty McFly just get in the Delorian and meet himself at the beginning of the movie and save us all the entertainment? Why didn't the good witch just tell Dorothy to click her heals at the beginning of the movie so we wouldn't have to be entranced by a talking scarecrow? And if Goofy's a dog, how can he own Pluto?

I'm just angry that some of the people who dis this movie are the same people who complain about the physics in Star Wars. You probably told your little sister the Easter Bunny wasn't real and that it was just a pagan relic that has nothing to do with Christianity. And you'll probably critique my grammar too. Hooray for you. Do us all a favor. Stop watching movies.

This movies rules. You don't.
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Dated, Hated
david-3419 February 2001
At one point the villain yells to his intended victims "I'll be back ... when it's dark!" So much for the element of surprise. But do the victims call the cops and get the hell out of there? No, they go to bed. That sums up the level of intelligence among the characters in this movie. This film has garnered a lot of praise, but to me it was a dated, unsuspenseful, unrealistic, jumbled, and at times laughably campy mess. Rent Cape Fear instead.
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